Monthly Archives: April 2020

A Plague of Misinformation – Tazria-Metzora 5780

One of the key principles in Jewish life is that words have power. That is why we recite certain sets of liturgy three times every day. That is why the Torah itself urges us to recite the Shema before going to sleep and when we wake up in the morning. That is why the pre-eminent mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah, the study of the words of Torah. And that mitzvah does not just mean “study,” as in, read them and/or commit them to memory. Talmud Torah is about elevating the words of the Jewish bookshelf by interpreting, re-interpreting, disagreeing and yes, even arguing about the meaning of our ancient texts, and of course applying them to our lives.  Everything is under scrutiny; slight nuances of individual words, or even single letters or vowels, can lead us to different interpretations. And that is really the essential holy act of Judaism.

That is why, as you have definitely heard me say before, we are still here: because we have been using our words – living them and revisiting them again and again – for literally thousands of years.

And it is this essential devotion to words – written, printed, spoken, and so forth – that makes us understand all the more so the essential value of using words with care.

Just a few examples of ways through which we demonstrate on a regular basis the high stakes with respect to the use of words: 

  1. Whoever leads services in a Jewish context, a sheliah tzibbur (literally, “emissary of the community”) must be skilled at pronouncing the words of tefillah / prayer correctly. The one who mispronounces words, whether accidentally or deliberately, should be replaced.
  2. Whenever we read from the Torah, there are two people standing on either side of the reader to correct her or him in the event of a mispronunciation that changes the meaning of the word.
  3. We have in our tradition strict halakhah / law about what is acceptable vs. unacceptable speech. Just a few examples:
    1. Lashon hara. “The evil tongue.” We are forbidden, according to Vayikra / Leviticus 19:16, which read in Parashat Qedoshim next week, from being rekhilim, people who tell tales about one another, whether true or false.
    2. Nibbul peh. “Lewdness of the mouth.” The Talmud (Yerushalmi Terumot 1:6) tells us that the use of foul language is prohibited. The words that come out of our mouth should be as pure as the food that we put in.
    3. Motzi shem ra. Slander. Our bar mitzvah mentioned this earlier in his devar Torah. A subset of gossip, this is the spreading of malicious falsehoods.
  4. We have an obligation to speak the truth, for example from Shemot / Exodus 23:7: מדבר שקר תרחק / Midevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood. 

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a rabbi from Belarus who lived in the 19th and early 20th century, is best known for the name of the book he wrote about lashon hara, called “Hafetz Hayyim.” The title is a reference to a line that we sang earlier this morning in Pesuqei DeZimra, from Psalm 34:13-14:

מִֽי־הָ֭אִישׁ הֶחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים אֹהֵ֥ב יָ֝מִ֗ים לִרְא֥וֹת טֽוֹב׃ נְצֹ֣ר לְשׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע וּ֝שְׂפָתֶ֗יךָ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר מִרְמָֽה׃

Who is the person who desires life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.

If we truly desire life, says Rabbi Kagan, we will guard our tongues, and not spread falsehoods.

According to our tradition, we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that our words reflect the qedushah, the holiness to which we aspire in all of our relationships. To do so reflects an honest desire to pursue life. Those that lie cause pain, suffering, and death.

And all of this is why the current moment is just so disturbing to me.

Let’s face it. We are all really, really anxious right now. Some of us are going a bit stir crazy, stuck in our homes, with few options for getting out of the house, other than to take a walk or go food shopping, the latter of which, in my experience, only causes more anxiety. (Nothing wrong with taking walks, of course; those of us who have dogs know that the dogs are clearly grateful for our presence around the house to take them for lots of walks.)

And aside from being cooped up in the house, everybody is anxious about the state of the world. As we watch the numbers of people with confirmed infections rise, and with them the number of people hospitalized, and those who die from the disease, we are all wondering: When will we see the peak? Will there be a second wave? What about all the people who have lost their jobs, their source of income? And perhaps most heartbreakingly, When can we resume our lives or reclaim some semblance of normalcy?

I, of course, have no answers to these questions, or even educated guesses. I certainly wish I did, but epidemiology was not included in my rabbinical school curriculum. Perhaps the closest approach I have to any knowledge of the spread of infectious diseases comes from the parashah that we read today, Tazria-Metzora, which of course describes the spread of an infectious disease, and frankly, it’s not so helpful (even though it does speak of regular testing and quarantine).

That disease, called in Hebrew tzara’at, has often historically been translated as “leprosy,” although I am told that anybody who knows anything about leprosy knows that the disease described in this part of Vayiqra / Leviticus cannot be leprosy, based on its description.

Nonetheless, there is an essential message here, related not to epidemiology but about a public health issue of another sort: that of misinformation.

You probably know what I’m talking about. There are many people spreading misinformation. Whether through malicious intent, or because they might be able to profit off people’s gullibility, or because they just do not know any better, repeating outright lies on social media is a transgression of the highest order. A few of the kinds of things that you might find out there are (a more extensive list of these things, courtesy of Ryerson University Ted Rogers School of Management Social Media Lab, is found here):

  • Promoting fake tests or cures. As of right now, there is no cure. Do not believe anything that presents as such.
  • Speculation on the origin. The virus was not created in a lab by some country to use as a weapon.
  • Dismissing the severity of the virus. Clearly a political move that comes from the honest desire that many of us have to see our businesses reopened and our jobs returned as soon as possible.
  • Racial, religious, or ethnicity-baiting. Perhaps the most tragic, because it demonstrates how easily many of us fall into blaming others for our situation. This type of malicious falsehood appeals to our basest fears.

And there are more. Ladies and gentlemen, this stuff is dangerous. Lies kill, just like some viruses do.

Unfortunately, one piece of news out there related to COVID-19 is that at a few of the anti-government protests intended to end state shutdowns, there were people displaying openly anti-Semtic signs. One, at a protest in Ohio, featured a cartoon of a blue rat with a Jewish star and a kippah on its head, flanked above and below by blue stripes similar to those on the Israeli flag, with the caption, “The Real Plague.”

Straight-up anti-Semitism aside, the danger here is simple: any kind of information that misleads people, whether intentional or unintentional, has the potential to cause more people to die. There has been dangerous misinformation about the malaria treatment, hydroxychloroquine, which in preliminary studies has not shown any effectiveness in curing people of the virus. The FDA on Friday (April 24th) issued a warning that this drug may cause heart arrhythmia in people with COVID-19.

And this should go without saying, but of course taking disinfectants internally is dangerous and ineffective. (And it’s just a little ridiculous that the company who manufactures Lysol had to issue a public statement to that effect.)

Part of the challenge here is the ease with which we can spread falsehoods today. While it used to be that you needed a printing press to promote misinformation, today anybody with a smartphone can put out lies to the entire world with a few finger taps. 

And that, in my mind, simply elevates the reasons that Jews have always been so invested in our words. Words can give life, as we have seen here today. But they can also, in fact, kill. 

And social media, when misused by anybody to promote misinformation, can kill as well. 

Hevreh, we have a responsibility right now, more than ever, to the truth – to scientific inquiry, to actual medical knowledge, to responsible, sober advice from people that actually know something. Drawing on Jewish tradition, please be discerning regarding what you post/repost. If you read something on Facebook or wherever that sounds like a cure, perhaps you should check it out before spreading it. Because, like the guy with the feather pillows, once it is out there, it cannot be taken back.

We who desire life must commit over and over to highlighting the importance of truth. And right now, anything less than truth can kill. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/25/2020.)

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Ephemeral Joy and the Bond of Life – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5780

The end of Pesah is, to me, always quite anti-climactic. We put the Passover dishes away, toss out foodstuffs that we would never consider eating during the rest of the year, and then life sort of shambles on as normal, as if these eight obsessively, gastronomically limited days were a brief lull. This year, of course, the usual lull will linger longer

My attention was recently captivated by an interview I heard on public radio, on the show On Being with Krista Tippett. She spoke with author and poet Ross Gay, who is also a professor of English at Indiana University. He said something that struck me for its paradoxical insight: that human joy is intimately tied to the operating principle that we are mortal. Let me just share with you how he put it:

… Joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die. When I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking about — that at the same time as something wonderful is happening, some connection is being made in my life, we are also in the process of dying. That is every moment… 

The connection between the dying and the joy…  is just the simple fact of the ephemerality of [life] … if you and I know we’re each in the process, [of dying], there is something that will happen between us. There’s some kind of tenderness that might be possible…

… [J]oy is the moments — for me, the moments when my alienation from people — but not just people, from the whole thing — it goes away. And it shrinks. If it was a visual thing, everything becomes luminous. And I love that mycelium, forest metaphor, that there’s this thing connecting us. And among [that] is that we have this common experience — many common experiences, but a really foundational one is that we are not here forever.

And that’s a joining — a “joy-ning.” So that’s sort of how I think about it.

Tippett:

But joy is — our capacity for joy, despite and through that, the fact that we’re all gonna die and that things are going wrong all the time, is also something that joins us together. It’s leveling, in a way.

Gay:

Totally… [I]t is joy by which the labor that will make the life that I want, possible. So it is not at all puzzling to me that joy is possible in the midst of difficulty.

***

These are exceptionally prophetic words, which, like words of Torah, we can only hear and interpret in our current context. The interview was recorded in July of 2019, however, long before COVID-19 was a thing.

Matters of life and death are shared between all of us. I think what Ross Gay is trying to say is that we all carry with us the potential to create joy, to increase happiness in this world, and we also all share the fact that we are going to die. So the potential for joyful living is predicated by the fact that we need it – that in all human relationships there is an implicit shared imperative to foster joy, since our time on Earth is limited.

The first thought that occurred to me as I was listening to this interview was, What a dreadful idea! How can reminding myself of my mortality possibly bring joy?

And then upon second thought, Wait a minute! He’s right. I share that with every other human on the planet. We may speak different languages, have absolutely orthogonal political outlooks, practice different religions, and so forth. But for every single one of us, the clock is ticking. It’s a jumping-off point for every relationship.

Death is, as Krista Tippett suggests, the great leveler, and arguably a cause for joy. And particularly when we lose somebody, it is the motivator for remembering to live. That is precisely the reason we mourn, the reason we say the Mourners’ Qaddish, which is not at all about death – to remember to live, to remember that, in our limited time, we must bring joy.

As I was listening to this a few weeks back, I was making breakfast for my family, whole-grain waffles with maple syrup, a joyful Sunday-morning move, and of course I was not thinking about dying. (I miss waffles. Only one more day of Pesah!)

But living, truly living, is in the joy that we bring to others – by preparing and sharing food with them, for example. And by talking. And by hugging. And by being there in times of need. And by being there for the happy times. And sometimes just by being present, or even present from a distance.

Because, when we are gone, we can no longer really create joy.

My teacher, Rabbeinu (“our teacher”) Neil Gillman, in his 1997 work, The Death of Death, points out that it is death that makes us fully human. “Death,” he says,” is not punishment for disobedience, but rather the inevitable result of the full flowering of our humanity.” He cites the Creation story from Bereshit / Genesis of Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden, as launching human-ness in its complete form; Adam and Eve were in some sense required to understand their mortality before they could be considered fully formed. He cites Martin Buber’s interpretation of the Gan Eden story as an act of compassion on humans by God, avoiding subjecting them to “aeons of suffering.” 

But life, thank God, is not merely suffering. It is all-encompassing, and in remembering to live, we also remember to seek pleasure and company and good times and love. And what makes the joy ultimately overpower the suffering is that we know that our time is fleeting.

We all carry with us a certain number of memories of people who are now gone. We all carry with us what made them who they were. And we remember them when we act in their memory, when we carry on with life, when we bring joy to ourselves and others.

Something that I am trying to do during this pandemic is to be positive. Yes, I think you know by now that I am an optimist. But I have been trying to draw on that well of optimism now more than ever. 

Let’s face it – our options for being joyful right now are somewhat limited, particularly if we live alone. And the entirety of the festival of Pesah, the festival of freedom, the festival of spring, the major holiday that kicks off the cycle of the Jewish year, has had a kind of pall over it. We have not been able to visit with family; we have not been able to exchange hugs and share food and stories with many people with whom we would ordinarily do so.

And yet, we also know that this will come to an end, and when it does, I know we will all be truly joyful.

But I think we have also been given a sort of gift by the pandemic, and that is a glimpse of our own mortality, and that reminder that death makes us human. We are all bound together in life – those of us who are still breathing, and those of us whom we remember on days like these. 

Because, as we will say in a few minutes when I recite the El Male Rahamim prayer, utzror bitzror hahayyim et nishmoteihem. May the souls of those whom we recall today be bound up in the tzeror hahayyim, the bond of life. You will also see a variant form of this written as an abbreviation on some Jewish gravestones, in the form of an acronym: תנצב”ה, which stands for “Tehi nishmatah/nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim .” May her/his soul be bound up in the bond of life. 

We are intimately connected, living and dead, through this bond of life. And although the dead do not give us joy, they certainly give us life through that connection, which enables us to go on seeking and giving joy to others.

And qal vahomer,  all the more so in this time of an afflicted world, we remember not only those who gave us life, but also those who died or are dying at the hands of this vicious virus, which does not discriminate with respect to age, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and so forth. We are reminded that we are all in this together – as Jews, as American citizens, and as human beings, interconnected with all others around the world. 

On this day of Yizkor, of calling to mind those whom we have lost, we must acknowledge our condition: that our lives are ephemeral, and that the joy that we share with others in the brief time that we have been granted is invaluable. We sink or swim not as individuals, but as a community, as a society, as a world.

We are deeply interconnected, mournful and joyful and distant and close all at the same time, all together, bound in that bond of life that makes us human, that calls us back to our shared mortality.

May we all be bound together in that tzeror hahayyim. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, eighth day of Pesah 5780, 4/16/2020.)

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Redemption from (Love-)Sickness – Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah 5780

It’s been at least a month now, maybe even six weeks, since I have shaken anybody’s hand, and that is probably true for just about all of us. (My wife and kids have kept me adequately supplied with hugs, but we don’t generally shake hands with each other around the house.)

I am going to tell you something about myself, something which some of you may have trouble believing, and that is this: I am NOT a people person. I am a classic introvert, one who draws energy from being alone, rather than from socializing with others. I am no fun at parties – I tend to be checking out the bookshelves and the artwork while others are chattering. Yes, I cover that well – an essential part of my work as a rabbi is to be social. To paraphrase Pirqei Avot (3:17), Im ein schmooze, ein Torah. Without schmoozing, there’s no Torah. We, the Jews, are a sociable people, and rabbis are not monks.

But, if you can believe this, it’s hard for me. There are times, particularly at the end of the day, when I just want to crawl into a hole and listen to NPR, or silence.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston. A great place to appreciate silence.

However, I have found the time at home in the last month harder than I anticipated. Something I have learned about myself in recent weeks is that I need to see people, to chat with them, to relate in person. And I am sure that many of us are feeling that need as well right about now.

A little earlier we read some of Shir HaShirim, one of the most curious and intriguing books of the Tanakh. Some of the questions that might arise about Shir HaShirim are:

  1. This is clearly ancient erotic poetry. What’s it doing in the Tanakh?
  2. Where is God?
  3. Why on Earth do we read this on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesah?

Addressing the more obvious challenge, which unites the first two questions, Shir HaShirim is understood in the rabbinic mind as being about the relationship between God and Israel as lovers. There is, indeed, romantic and sexual tension found in the contortions of this relationship; from the Sinai moment until today, God is continually being spurned and then sought again by Israel. (The prophet Hosea, who, if you survey all the haftarot of the year, is the most-read of the minor prophets, allegorizes exactly this relationship in his description of his own faithless marriage.) 

The lovers in Shir HaShirim face a kind of disconnect; while they speak of touching one another, they are often distant, missing each other’s overtures, seeking each other. I must say that this describes to some extent my own personal God experience, and maybe yours as well. 

For example:

2:14

יוֹנָתִ֞י בְּחַגְוֵ֣י הַסֶּ֗לַע בְּסֵ֙תֶר֙ הַמַּדְרֵגָ֔ה הַרְאִ֙ינִי֙ אֶתּ־מַרְאַ֔יִךְ הַשְׁמִיעִ֖ינִי אֶת־קוֹלֵ֑ךְ כִּי־קוֹלֵ֥ךְ עָרֵ֖ב וּמַרְאֵ֥יךְ נָאוֶֽה׃

“O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, Hidden by the cliff, Let me see your face, Let me hear your voice; For your voice is sweet And your face is comely.”

3:1-2

עַל־מִשְׁכָּבִי֙ בַּלֵּיל֔וֹת בִּקַּ֕שְׁתִּי אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

Upon my couch at night I sought the one I love— I sought, but found him not.

אָק֨וּמָה נָּ֜א וַאֲסוֹבְבָ֣ה בָעִ֗יר בַּשְּׁוָקִים֙ וּבָ֣רְחֹב֔וֹת אֲבַקְשָׁ֕ה אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

“I must rise and roam the town, Through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” I sought but found him not.

I spend a great deal of time in tefillah / prayer, lavishing praise upon God (which is what the majority of our statutory prayers consist of). Just as the lover in Shir HaShirim describes the object of her desire in rich, hyperbolic prose, so too do we whenever we open the siddur / prayerbook.

And yet, when we seek, we often do not find God. We yearn, we plead, our mouths overflow with litanies of praise. Some Mizrahi (Eastern) traditions chant Shir HaShirim before Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evenings; that is not our custom, but we do sing Yedid Nefesh, which draws heavily on imagery from Shir HaShirim: “Nafshi holat ahavatakh,” wrote the poet Rabbi Elazar Azikri in the 16th century. My soul is sick from your love, riffing on 2:5.

It is this unquenched desiring for God’s presence, to find our Eternal Lover, that keeps us connected to our tradition, that reminds us of the ongoing potential for redemption. Rambam describes this imperative in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:3: 

And what is the proper love? One shall love the Lord with an exceeding great and very strong love so that one’s soul be tied to the love of the Lord, finding oneself in a constant tremor, as if suffering of lovesickness, … This is what Solomon allegorically said: Ki holat ahavah ani / “For I am love-sick” (Songs 2.5). And, the whole book, Shir HaShirim, is an allegory on this subject.

And it is through this love that we are redeemed. The Exodus story is the foundational moment of the loving relationship between Israel and God. The relationship that is defined in the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai, a climactic moment that effectively consummates the relationship. Integral to this loving relationship is the idea that God will complete the redemption of Israel: having been brought forth from slavery and brought into the covenantal relationship with Torah, the final stage of redemption is bringing the Israelites into the land promised to them, the land of Israel. 

What happened at Sinai was a wee bit more than a handshake. And that love continues to this day. The Exodus story looms large in Jewish thought and ritual because it is the template for future redemption; love and redemption are intimately intertwined.

Some of you have probably heard me speak about my own personal theology, which dwells heavily on finding God in the interstices of our lives, in the cosmic glue which holds us all together, both from the perspective of physics and of human relationships. 

However, in this particular time, I must say that I want to lean into the traditional understanding of God as the one who, having redeemed us in the past, exemplified by the loving redemption story that Pesah commemorates, will redeem us once again. And I am not hoping for a big Redemption (with a capital R) right now, but rather, just the opportunity to spend time with friends and family again, for my kids to be able to go to the playground again, for me to be able to meet with congregants again and shake hands, as I always do. 

We read Shir HaShirim on Pesah as a sign not only of that great Redemption, but also of the little redemptions that we experience every day. Shir HaShirim reminds us that love is that cosmic glue, and that the minor redemptions on which we depend are never too far away, even if we cannot see them, even as we seek God and do not find.

You are loved, not only by God, of course, but also by the others around you. And although we may not feel their touch right now, although we may not be able to physically reach out, we should take some comfort in knowing that, when we are redeemed, that this brief period of separation, of seeking, of yearning, will heighten the experience of being with each other, in each other’s physical presence once again. 

I eagerly await that day, that redemption. Shabbat shalom and Hag Sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah, 4/11/2020.)

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One Vulnerable Goat (and Two Zuzim) – Pesah Day 1 5780

When I look at the Pesah seder with my rabbi-glasses on, of course I see all the great opportunities to discuss, all of the ways in which the story is relevant to who we are and how we live today.

But when I look at it from the perspective of one who has been Jewish my whole life, and for 34 of those 50 years NOT as a rabbi or a cantor, I see a totally different thing. I see family dinner, with great food and good company, with people noodging each other around the table as they have always done, silly dad jokes and older siblings who have not seen each other in months falling into their regular patterns. I hear the family stories – the time that I dissed my grandmother’s home-made gefilte fish in favor of Mrs. Adler, the time so-and-so actually drank four cups of wine and was clearly drunk. I hear the music of families singing old seder standards together: Mah Nishtana, Dayyenu

The family sedarim of my youth were not about discussion. We generally read the Maxwell House, and maybe later the KTAV haggadah, in English, one paragraph at a time, and I don’t think we really understood it that well. We did not know, for example, that the five rabbis – Eliezer, Yehoshua, El’azar ben Azariah, Aqiva and Tarfon – were plotting rebellion against the Romans in what would be the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and that the line, “Rabboteinu, higi’a zeman qeri’at Shema shel shaharit” / “Our teachers! The time has come to recite the morning Shema,” may have been the code phrase for, “Quick! Hide! Roman soldiers are coming!”

We did not know that the seder is an imitation of the Greek symposium, in which Greek men of leisure would dine and philosophize and dip their food whilst reclining to the left, and then go out partying from house to house in what was known in Greek as “epikomion,” a word that entered Mishnaic Hebrew as “afiqoman.”

We did not understand the fuss made over small textual issues, like interpreting “Kol yemei hayyekha,” (Deut. 16:3; literally, “all the days of your life”) or how ten plagues became 250. We did not know that the standard Four Questions are not the same Four Questions asked in the Mishnah, and we failed to notice that they were really only one question with four elaborations on that question.

We were, however, singers, and so we have always enjoyed singing along together at the end of the service. And we have always enjoyed getting a little crazy with songs toward the end. Fine, so I didn’t know what “Shishah sidrei mishnah” (six are the orders of the Mishnah) exactly meant. I didn’t really know what the Mishnah is until my 30s. But who cares?

One of the songs that we have always sung is Had Gadya. It’s a fun song, and fits neatly into the other seder songs in that it is repetitive, and designed to last a while to extend the evening’s festivities. Anybody who has been to the congregational sedarim that I have led in recent years is familiar with the Moishe Oysher melody:  

וְאָתָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְשָׁחַט לְמַלְאַךְ הַמָּוֶת, דְּשָׁחַט לְשׁוֹחֵט, דְּשָׁחַט לְתוֹרָא, דְשָׁתָה לְמַיָּא, דְּכָבָה לְנוּרָא, דְשָׂרַף לְחוּטְרָא, דְהִכָּה לְכַלְבָּא, דְנָשַׁךְ לְשׁוּנְרָא, דְאָכְלָה לְגַדְיָא, דְזַבִּין אַבָּא בִּתְרֵי זוּזֵי. חַד גַּדְיָא, חַד גַּדְיָא

Then came the Holy One, blessed be He and slaughtered the angel of death, who slaughtered the shohet (kosher slaughterer) who slaughtered the bull, that drank the water, that extinguished the fire, that burnt the stick, that hit the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the kid that my father bought for two zuzim, one kid, one kid.

Not a song that you might ordinarily think about too deeply – it’s not too different in spirit and structure from, “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” 

But what is Had Gadya about? On the old Moishe Oysher LP, The Moishe Oysher Seder, the narrator says, “If you listen closely to the words, this song tells the entire story of the Jewish people.” Although I must say that that does not quite make sense. If we consider ourselves, the Jews, to be the goat, then we were long ago consumed before the Qadosh Barukh Hu came along to redeem us. 

I would rather approach it from a perspective that Dr. Erica Brown brings in her commentary to her book, Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggada. She says the following:

We get the last laugh. We still survive to sing about our vulnerability…

Had Gadya is essentially about leaning into our vulnerability. We are the goat, the meek kid purchased for a mere two zuzim – just a few meager coins. We are the most vulnerable character in the whole scheme. Jewish history is filled with stories in which we barely survived: we escaped slavery in Egypt; we returned after the Babylonian Exile; we escaped death at the hands of the Persian Empire; we lost Jerusalem and the Temple to the Romans, and then the Bar Kokhba Revolt was crushed a half-century later; etc., etc. And all of that was two-to-three millennia ago. A whole lot more happened since. (And, by the way, what better way to remind us of our fundamental vulnerability than a world-wide pandemic?)

 Dr. Brown goes on:

What starts the entire song moving is the two zuzim used to purchase the goat, referring to the two tablets given to us at Sinai. Because we were claimed and “purchased” for this covenant, God ultimately intervenes to make sure that we are protected and redeemed… The song asks us not to fear the repetition of our hardest hours in history because God breaks the cycle of violence and we endure.

The Qadosh Barukh Hu wins. God wins. And hence we win. But we do not win by aspiring to be the butcher or the ox, but by being the vulnerable goat, the one that came from the two zuzim / tablets. Our value is that of Torah, that of covenant. Our strength is not the might of the fire or the water, but in the quiet confidence that comes from sticking to our tradition and knowing that, whatever happens, God is on our side.

Yes, yes. I know that this does not quite fit into the theological framework of Kaplan’s God as the power that makes for salvation, or Buber’s Unconditional, the kinds of contemporary theological constructs that I prefer. On the contrary, this is more of a traditional, activist God, the one that we appeal to in our tefillah, the one who is Magen Avraham (the shield of Abraham) and Poked Sarah (who remembers Sarah), who is somekh nofelim (lifting up the fallen) and rofeh holim (healing the sick). Now is an especially good time to focus on that last one – the world needs a good doctor right now.

But hey – now is the time that I need an activist God, one that will protect us and help us all come through this. And we will come through this.

Dr. Brown adds the following:

We see ourselves as fragile in this world… We ask to stay small and humble and for our humility to be the hallmark of our identity, along with the two zuzim, the laws, that keep us holy.

One of the things that distinguishes the Jewish origin story from that of many others is that we see our nationhood, Am Yisrael, as having been forged in slavery. It is the passage from slavery to freedom that enabled us to receive the Torah (there are those two zuzim again!) on Mt. Sinai, and to be a party to that berit, that covenant with God. Our strength, our protection essentially comes from that vulnerable place, that “meitzar” / narrow place that we sing about in Hallel that we associate with Egypt, Mitzrayim. We remember that we are the kid, the baby goat, and that stirs us to be resolute about the future. Redemption is coming.

And not only that, as a part of that covenant, it is up to us to bring on that redemption. So here is a discussion you can have tonight, and you do not have to wait until you sing Had Gadya at the end, ‘cause it might be too late by then and folks might already have checked out. 

Here’s the question: 

How does knowing that we came from slavery, from the place of ultimate vulnerability, lead us to be better people? How does it make us better citizens, better parents and partners and siblings and neighbors and co-workers? Discuss. 

Have that discussion right after the so-called “Four Questions.” Extra points if you can point to lines in the haggadah that support your argument, but of course the entirety of the Jewish bookshelf is also available to you if you need help. Good luck!

Hag Sameah!

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Thursday morning, April 9, 2020.)

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What Makes Pesah Work? – Shabbat HaGadol, 5780

A few years back, in the week before Pesah, I was somewhat surprised to see an ad on my Facebook scroll for a Passover seder at a nearby Italian restaurant. This was not a kosher restaurant, and clearly all the more so during Pesah. So OK, there are Jews in this world for whom kashrut, for Pesah or otherwise, is not so high on the list of priorities. But the thing that got me was the line, “A Very Reformed Seder Service (20 min.).”

Now, leaving aside the term “reformed,” which many Reform Jews read as a slur – reform is an ongoing process, not something that was done in the past – the enticement that the ad seemed to be presenting was that this seder experience would be long on food and short on ritual, discussion, or singing. 

Now, it’s curious that Facebook thought I would be interested in this seder (perhaps the algorithm has since improved). But all the more so, it’s curious that some people would be so inclined as to minimize the best part of Pesah, that is, the story, and (I presume) toss out many of the essential, traditional food items in favor of a pasta dinner? Particularly because, being the second-most-observed ritual of the Jewish year, the seder formula clearly works.

Prior to this year, statistics have shown that about three-quarters of American Jews come to a seder. What will happen this year is probably a dramatic decline in the number of seder attendees, because my assumption is that the majority of us go to somebody else’s seder, and in our current circumstances, we cannot do that. (That is the primary reason, BTW, that I am live-streaming the second-night seder from my home.)

But what makes the seder so popular? Is it the food? Is it the story? The songs? The gathering of family? The short answer is, yes to all.

This will not be the first time that I have mentioned Marshall Sklare, the Brandeis sociologist who chronicled American Jewry in the middle of the 20th century, suggested that American Jews are most likely to maintain Jewish rituals that:

  1. May be redefined in modern terms
  2. Do not demand social isolation (i.e. requirements that separate the Jew from the wider society; yes, I know that sounds curious in the present moment!)
  3. Offers a Jewish alternative to a non-Jewish holiday (e.g. Easter, Christmas; this was something that was brought to my attention by one of our teens at a USY “Lunch & Learn” I facilitated last week, so it’s still valid)
  4. Centers on the child
  5. Is infrequent (e.g. annual, rather than weekly or daily)

Sklare pointed to the Pesah seder and the lighting of Hanukkah candles as being the best examples of such rituals in his book, America’s Jews, published in 1971. And really, little has changed in the last four decades: Pesah may still resonate because it pushes all those buttons. And Dr. Sklare’s thinking seems to still be on the money, half a century later. In this time of decreasing Jewish engagement, particularly outside of Orthodoxy, Pesah is a model that still works.

Away from the cold, academic glare, however, something else is true: Pesah works because we make it work. Perhaps in accord with Sklare’s first observation, that a ritual is likely to be observed if it may be redefined to suit contemporary issues, the message of Pesah continues to resonate with us. Slavery is still an unfortunate reality of today’s world (go to slaveryfootprint.org for more information on that); poverty and oppression may be found just about wherever we look. Those members of our people who fought for civil rights in the 1960s read the haggadah in that context, and there are those who read it today with the various ongoing struggles for equality – for women, for gays and lesbians, for non-Orthodox Jewish movements in Israel – in mind.

But I think there is more to the story.

In the central portion of the seder, the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt (the item identified as Maggid, “telling”), there is a classical midrashic exposition of a passage from the Torah. The passage is the one that begins, “Arami oved avi,” “My father was a wandering Aramean.” (Deut. 26:5-8). You are probably familiar with it. The Torah presents these verses as the proto-liturgical  monologue that the Israelites would recite when bringing their first fruits to the kohen, the priest, on Shavuot, and it encapsulates the story of Jacob and his family going down into Egypt, where they became a great nation, and then were enslaved, and God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, etc., etc.  

Within the midrash is the following comment on four words from Deut. 26:5:

וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל. מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מְצֻיָּנִין שָׁם

Vayhi sham legoi gadol. Melamed shehayu Yisrael metzuyanim sham.

They became a great nation. It teaches that the Israelites were distinguished there [in Egypt].

The Rabbinical Assembly’s “Feast of Freedom” haggadah (which I use in my home) elaborates on this as follows:

[The Israelites] became unique… through their observance of mitzvot. They were never suspected of unchastity or slander; they did not change their names and they did not change their language.

What makes us a great nation, ladies and gentlemen, is just as true today: we have our own heritage, our own traditions, our own laws. We also have our own language, the Hebrew language, which underwent a tremendously successful revival in the last century as a modern tongue. We also continue to keep our own Hebrew names, which we continue to use, for example, when we call our daughters to the Torah for bat mitzvah, and when our sons stand under the huppah, and at various other points in the Jewish life cycle.

This is our Jewish framework. But in addition to this, wherever we have lived, we have also taken on some of the aspects of the wider (i.e. non-Jewish) society, although for the most part we were never entirely assimilated to the point where we lost our tradition. Indeed, you might make the case that it is in fact Judaism’s flexibility that has enabled us to maintain our distinctiveness while living among non-Jews, to be both Jewish and something else. 

Rashi, living in 11th-century France, spoke French and followed some French customs (he was a wine merchant, and historians suggest that he also wore a beret, smoked Gauloises, and exuded ennui). 

Rashi

Maimonides, in 12th-century Egypt, was a court physician to the sultan in Cairo, who treated Jews and non-Jews. 

Moses Mendelssohn, widely considered the first modern Jew, joined the elite salons of 18th-century Berlin while continuing to practice his faith. 

Theodore Herzl, in the late 19th century, was a secular Hungarian Jewish journalist, and yet he arguably launched the most successful modern ideological product of Judaism, that is, Zionism. 

Throughout our history, although we kept Hebrew and our names and the Torah, we have navigated the wider culture and adapted to new environments and new host societies. And we have incorporated some things from the non-Jews around us as well: foods, including ritual foods, vary tremendously within our communities. And music and spoken languages and a whole range of minhagim, of customs, differ greatly depending on where your ancestors landed.

Yet there are certain commonalities of Jewish life that have continued for two thousand years or more – just one example: leather tefillin were found at Qumran, the site where the Essene sect lived at the northern end of the Dead Sea 2,000 years ago. But in every generation, each of us has seen ourselves come forth from slavery to freedom in our own context. We have never lived in a vacuum; we have continually scoured our tradition for contemporary relevance, searching for how the great works of the Jewish bookshelf continue to speak to us. Etz hayyim hi lemahazikim ba. The Torah is our Tree of Life, and in holding on to it we have upheld our nationhood even as we have clothed it in new styles and fabrics.

Had we been rigidly committed to one particular mode of living, Judaism could have died many times over: when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE. Or when the Romans laid waste to the Second Temple in 70 CE. Or after the great yeshivot around Baghdad closed up shop in the 11th century CE. Or after the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. Or after the Shoah / Holocaust.

So here is a suggestion. When you sit down to your seder on Wednesday evening, do what Jews have always done: make it yours! Make it relevant! Don’t just do what you’ve always done. That is NOT how Jews do it!

Here are some examples:

When the Four Questions come up, don’t just limit yourself to those traditional four. Ask more questions!

When telling the story of Pesah, don’t simply read what’s in the good ol’ Maxwell House haggadah. Have somebody summarize it in their own words. Get up from the table and act it out! Assign parts!  Have everybody improvise parts of the story! If you have time, prepare some costume items: a staff for Moses, a crown for Pharaoh, a megaphone for God (maybe there is an app for that?), etc.

Plague masks

Have discussion questions prepared: What are you a slave to? What are the things that you are grateful for? What are the things that make your life bitter? In what ways do you feel free?  Why is spring the best time of year? What hametz-laden item do you miss the most during these eight days and why?

These ideas work for families, for children, for sullen teens, for adults, everybody!

Ladies and gentlemen, what makes Pesah work is you! Your creativity, your enthusiasm, your joy. It’s not just about the kids, as Sklare suggested. It’s about you, living here in 21st-century America. 

So go ahead, set the text of the haggadah to the music of Lil Nas X, or to the music of Hamilton, or whatever. Make it yours. Make it relevant. That is how we will maintain our Jewishness and the eternal appeal of our rituals. Hag sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/4/2020.)

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